Friday, 8 March 2013

Google Docs: a student's tool for harnessing collective intelligence

Part of a series on Web 2.0 Applications

"Collective intelligence is ... shared or group intelligence that emerges from the collaboration and competition of many individuals"

Nobody likes group assignments, right?

There is this problem, and there is that problem, and then there is another problem. Even for those of us who do enjoy group work, we usually have some horror stories to tell.


In this post, I'd like to share some collaboration strategies for successful group projects. Clever use of Google Docs for online, real-time collaboration can make the assignment process more reflective of a "group effort" and can produce a higher quality assessment. You may not know it, but with some of these techniques you too can harness your group's collective intelligence!

"Collective intelligence is groups of individuals doing things collectively that seem intelligent"
— T Malone, MIT

Characteristics of collective intelligence

  • Openness
    "benefits accrue from allowing others to share ideas and gain significant improvement and scrutiny through collaboration"

  • Peering
    "users are free to modify and develop"

  • Sharing
    "share some ideas while maintaining some degree of control over others"

  • Acting globally
    "no geographical boundaries"

— D Tapscott and A D Williams. Cited on Wikipedia. Original source available from Amazon.

Even small groups display collective intelligence

Collective intelligence is often known as crowdsourcing, and a common misconception is that it is only a product of large, distributed groups. However research conducted by MIT's Center for Collective Intelligence found that even small groups (2-5 people) show significant collective intelligence. MIT poses the question: Could a group’s collective intelligence be increased by, for example, better electronic collaboration tools?

In my experience Web 2.0 tools such as Google Docs are the perfect collaboration tools for university group assessments, enabling the group to tap into shared knowledge, skills and intelligence in a very effective way.

What is Google Docs?

Google Docs (Docs) is an app available on Google Drive, designed for sharing documents between multiple users and devices on the cloud. The interface is similar to most desktop word processing applications, however Docs is stored on the cloud and accessed through the user's web browser.

Documents can be edited collaboratively and in real-time by multiple users. Users can view changes made by others, comments can  be made within the document, and a chat function is available for live group discussion and feedback. Changes are also tracked and past revisions are automatically saved.

How is Google Docs used by students today?

Docs has revolutionised the way smart students collaborate on group assignments. I just conducted a quick poll of Hubby's friends, who graduated about 4-5 years ago: for them, group work involved dividing the project up into parts, working on those parts individually, and holding weekly meetings to discuss the project. They complained that the parts of the assessment were of varying quality and rarely had a consistent style, and the burden fell upon one member of the group to collate those parts into a final report, often at the last minute.

Just a few years later, and all of my group assignments are done on Docs. Yes, it is my tool of choice, but other students consistently recommend it to me as well.

I generally kick off a group assignment by putting a rough outline of the report structure into the Doc. The group does divide the assignment into parts, and we each take responsibility for our share. This may sound similar to how assignments were done in the past, but the use of a shared online document for collaboration has a number of additional benefits:

  • We can view, comment on and edit others' sections 
    For this technique to be successfully adopted, it is important to agree with the group from the outset that all feedback is welcome and encouraged, and to stress that the report is ultimately a combined effort. I have observed that multiple group members editing the same section, each with their own knowledge and ideas, can produce a very coherent and well thought out report. Common mistakes by individual group members, such as misunderstandings or failing to identify important concepts, can often be prevented by collaborating in this way.

  • We can chat with group members in real-time
    Docs' chat function, and ability to view and comment on others' edits in real-time, promote communication within the group. Weekly meetings are still desirable, but Docs enables more regular and convenient virtual meetings.

  • We can view and comment on others' changes in real-time
    Receiving comments on a section you are currently working on can be useful, enabling you to action those suggestions and/or discuss them further at the time, while you're still working on the project, rather than having to go back to them later when the project isn't fresh in your mind.

  • We can see which group members aren't pulling their weight
    This promotes accountability and makes it easier to pick up potential group issues early on in the project.

Effectively using these techniques enables the assignment to be more than a collection of parts; it can become a true product of the collective intelligence of the group.


But is this really "collective intelligence", or just "collaboration"?

Four characteristics of collective intelligence are openness, peering, sharing and acting globally (Tapscott & Williams). In my typical group experience using Docs, these characteristics are all met.

Sharing your own sections of an assignment facilitates openness, allowing other group members to suggest new ideas and provide feedback. Recognising that all members take equal ownership of the project is an example of peering; this helps group members take responsibility of the whole of the report rather than just their individual sections, often resulting in a better quality of work being produced overall.

Sharing ideas is the central reason why this form of collaboration is so successful, and the ease of accessing the application coupled with Docs' tracked changes and revisions enables all group members to have control over both the process and the final outcome. Finally, Docs enables group members to act globally, as they can collaborate with the group on their own schedule and at their own location, outside or even instead of weekly on-campus meetings.

"Collective stupidity is just as possible as collective intelligence"

Does this approach have disadvantages?

An online collaborative approach is never foolproof, particularly if a group member is untrustworthy, careless, or wants to deliberately sabotage the group, however this is more a disadvantage of group work than of any particular collaborative technique.

A report by NCBI does suggest "most users prefer parallel writing—either users work separately and occasionally upload their sections or write the entire sections separately and merge the sections with the document upon completion". However I would question this statement of user preference: among academically-matched peers, my experience of the collaborative Docs approach has been very positive. We do still take ownership of our own sections, perhaps a reflection of this "preference", but we also benefit greatly from the giving and receiving of feedback.

NCBI also suggests some potential disadvantages of collaborative online authoring.
  • Misinterpreting comments made by other users
  • Resolving conflicting suggestions
  • Lack of awareness of social concerns within the group
  • Poor annotation and version tracking tools

Docs' chat function and ability to simultaneously edit the document decreases the risk of misinterpreting other users' comments, and provides an additional forum for resolving conflicting suggestions. Real-time chat also increases the social cohesiveness of the group.

Google Wave: in memoriam

In relation to annotation and version control, brief and regretful mention should be made of Google Wave, which was similar to Docs but even better for group collaboration. One disadvantage of Docs is that it's not possible to see which user made which change, if you weren't online when the change was made. In comparison Wave used to clearly indicated which comments and changes were made by each user, through colour coding and annotation.

Wave also had a more prominent and easily accessible version control tool: users could view any past iteration of the document and could step through the changes made by themselves and other users. This provided greater control and security, and further reduced the potential disadvantage of poor annotation and version tracking.

The Wave project was sadly shut down in early 2012, due to "slow user uptake". The concept was handed over to Apache, and Apache Wave Wave in a Box is now being developed. Docs is good, but Wave was even better, and I will be eagerly watching as this project evolves.

What technologies do YOU use for group collaboration? Please let me know your thoughts, and take a minute to answer this week's poll on the right.



  1. SharePoint is my weapon of choice for close knit team work at the moment. A problem is that only one can edit at a time so if people unfamiliar with the platform inadvertently have a document checked out for extended periods no-one else can make changes. From my work as a Community Engagement Manager in healthcare I learned that there are a lot of crowd sourcing tools. An example is the current project I am managing where one of the shared decision making tools is a simple online form:

    My favourite method is in person group facilitation, as you would have witnessed last year in Adelaide Amber! The challenge is sticking to group rules alluded to above. In real time with real people it can be quite a challenge to facilitate a diverse group.

    When google+ came out I immediately identified it as a good way to collaborate at a professional level. I have yet to get stuck into it though.

    Great post, I like how you have captured the wider principles of crowd sourcing to give better context to the power of Google Docs. Cheer, Joel

    1. Hey Joel,

      I never thought of survey/feedback forms as a crowd sourcing tool before, but you're absolutely right! I do know what you mean about sharing systems where you have to check in/out documents - they're great, but I've had lots of trouble before when someone leaves a document locked and nobody else can get in!

      I agree that a collaboration tool can never replace in-person group discussions. I think this is one of the big differences between groups at uni and in the workplace though - at work you can and should meet as often as you need, but at uni it's difficult to have regular meetings, and that's where a collaboration tool can step in.

      Sadly I missed your talk in Adelaide, but it was really interesting to hear about it from you afterwards. Any chance of a repeat in Brisbane this year? ;)

      I've never gotten into Google+. It's a great idea, but because everyone's on Facebook instead there's not much point social networking with no network. :)

      Glad you liked my post. Thanks for showing it some love!

    2. Missed my talk, what!? In that case we are going deep in Brisvegas this year..... deeeeeeeeep.

  2. Hi Amber, great great post! Very in-depth on the collaborations on why GoogleDocs is your first choice for gathering collaborative data.

    Since the start of my university days, Dropbox was often used, rather than GoogleDocs! But now, I would definitely encourage my group members to get Docs! Thank you!

    You mentioned that you could envisage who contributes the least in GoogleDocs? How?
    I do know that GoogleDocs edits are real time and would you agree with me that if another group member were to edit a part where you are responsible for, it turns nasty as it overwrites what you have been editing all the while.

    Please clear my doubts on googledocs! :) I look forward to your reply!

    1. Hi Jerfen,

      Thanks, glad you enjoyed my post. :)

      You can tell who contributes the least on Google Docs through the "Revision history" menu - it shows a colour-coded minute-by minute log entry for when each user edited the document. So if one name appears less often, you know they edited the Doc the least. That's an important point - I should probably edit my post to put it in. Thanks!

      I do agree that groups can turn nasty - I think there's always that risk, for a bunch of reasons, whether you're using a collaborative tool or not. Users of the Doc need to be sensible, and if you don't have a certain level of trust in your team members then maybe you shouldn't be working with them. Also, your edits can never be completely overwritten - you can use the same "Revision history" menu to restore a previous version of the Doc if anything bad happens.

      If you do try Google Docs for your next team project, please let me know. I'm eager to hear how you find it!

  3. Hi Amber,

    Good post AND the interface sure is striking!

    GoogleDocs is a great alternative for groups to collaborate easily, there are other tools such as dropbox, facebook, google+ etc that also offers collaboration.

    What i like about google docs is everyone can edit the same document at the same time. However there are some minor drawbacks such as formatting issues i found to be a pain when i used google docs last semester. You can chat, edit, see who is online with google docs. Even back tracking your work (incase someone overides things)

    1. Hi Andy,

      Thanks, glad you like it!

      I've never used Dropbox for collaboration - it looks like it has the advantage over Sharepoint, which Joel mentioned, since it doesn't lock files, but there is still the risk of conflicts happening if two users edit the same section. For me, the fact that Google Docs allows simultaneous edits with no conflicts has these both beaten hands down. But yes, there are definitely other tools which can also do the job.

      I agree with you about that drawback - formatting such as tables and images is difficult in Google Docs. When my team is finished with the Doc, I'm usually the one to paste it into Word to tidy up the formatting. It's a disadvantage, but only affects formatting not content, so it's certainly not a deal breaker.

  4. To be honest, as part of your Web 2.0 series, I expected this to be quite boring for me. A very well-written*, knowledgeable, boring blog post.

    Instead, this is really helpful, given I had no idea about the subject, and I'm embarking on another painful group project soon (WHY UNIVERSITY, WHY?). I'll be using GoogleDocs now for sure (probably by myself, given the usual contribution of your average group-member).

    Thanks for this!

    Funnily enough I'd written (or it had auto-corrected to) 'writed' somehow. Thought you'd love that one.

    1. Hi Kate,

      I'm glad you enjoyed what I writed. ;)

      To also be honest, as an [whispers] assessment [whispers] I thought it might be boring to write, but it really wasn't. Honesty is everything in blogs, right?

      I'm eager to hear how you go with Docs for this project. At least when you get that horrible feeling that you're doing all the work you can look at "Revision history" and know it for a fact instead of just a feeling. But hopefully you'll have better luck with this assignment. I find that sometimes using Docs gives team members a feeling of more control or ownership of the project, not just their part, and that can encourage them to do more work.

      See you here next time. :)

  5. Interesting view on collective intelligence on a smaller and more private scale. (I didn't really think of it like that before! - it's kind of like a private Wiki)

    I've used Google Docs a lot in the past, but have recently used Microsoft SkyDrive and actually like it a lot more since you are able to collaborate straight through Word on your desktop - no need to reformat once collaboration is complete.

    I loved Google Wave when it came out. Being a Fine Arts student too, it allowed collaboration in different ways, particularly great for brainstorming. It will be interesting to see what Apache comes up with!

    1. Cool, I've never used SkyDrive but now I'm eager to try that out.

      For anyone else who's interested, this video shows how SkyDrive can be used for collaboration. It uses the same basic principle as Google Docs, except that you have to manually save the changes made by the other user/s (in Docs this is automatic). Monique, is it annoying having to save the changes, or does it just become habit?

      I do like the idea of keeping the project in Word for better formatting. I'll have to try SkyDrive out!

    2. It's a little annoying - it asks if you want to keep your or their changes, which is kind of confusing at first. I think it's something they will have to work on. It's a bit different in the way that you can't see what people are writing as they type, instead it "locks" paragraphs so you can't overwrite each other.

      Like I said, it's still new, so it has some issues they will need to iron out a bit better, but on the whole I love being able to edit straight from Word. Definitely give it a try! :)

  6. Great post. This is the first BLOG I have read & you certainly appear to have addressed the question well. I haven't used google docs much for collaboration! In fact this is my first year at Uni back as a MIT student since graduating in 2005. Much has changed in those 8 years! I think I will utilize this 2.0 application more now I know a bit more about it. Cheers.

    1. Great, glad my post was able to be useful!

  7. Amazing post Amber! I have never used Google Docs before because I do not have a Google account but your post is very encouraging and persuading me to get one!

    I mainly use Dropbox and I never knew about Google Docs real-time communication features! Dropbox lacks a way for users to communicate easily with one another (unless there is and I just don't know about it ahahaha). With previous assignments, I had to email my team members or text them about their opinions about some files I uploaded. It can be quite tedious when they don't respond right away so I think it's a great idea on Google Docs part to have some sort of communication feature that users can use implicitly in the service!

    Also, I quite like how users of Google Docs can share files to others who don't have Google Docs (like Dropbox's public folder). It's a great example of how Google Docs harnesses collective intelligence and allows users to be involved explicitly in the service to maximise the value of their product!

    This was a great read Amber, thank you! I will definantly be looking into getting Google Docs! Kind regards, Laura :)

    1. Hi Laura, you've summarised the problem with methods like Dropbox really well. Unfortunately no collaboration tool can make up for having a group that just doesn't want to communicate, but at least Google Docs makes communication harder to avoid, since it becomes an intrinsic part of your project.

      I'm glad you enjoyed my post. Thanks for stopping by!

  8. Hey, an interesting one!
    Google docs, I've heard that before but never use it. This can be quite useful when doing group assignments :) Back in Indonesia, the country I come from, I only use email and ms word for group projects. And when I thought about it, although we can finish the project well, but it's hard to keep in contact with my group mates.

    1. You're right - even if communication is difficult, it's still possible to produce a really good project using things like Word and email. Google Docs does make it easier though, and the beauty of Docs is that it's available everywhere - even in Indonesia. Next time you collaborate with someone back home, maybe you can use it. :)

  9. Really nice post and it covered a lot information, I actually learn something here, so I really like it. Really good ideal with the survey too. There only one problem that I feel the post is a little difficult for me too read, you may consider an improvement with the visual, anyway this is only personal opinion, nice work. :)

    1. Thanks Miss J, I'm glad you found it interesting. :)

      And thanks for your feedback about the font. I changed it - do you think this new one is clearer?